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Weeping for the Children

As I ironed a shirt this morning, making my typical preparations for a typical day of work, a heartbreakingly and increasingly all-too-typical news story caught my attention and gripped my heart.

Shots had been fired. Life had been lost.

Cell phone videos replayed the struggle among two Baton Rouge police officers and a civilian suspect. Broadcast journalists, experts, protesters, and family members debated whether the shooting was justifiable. They all agreed that it was tragic, and I agreed with them.

The next scene underscored and emphasized the tragedy for me. As his mother spoke to the media, fifteen year old Cameron Sterling sobbed and cried out, “I want daddy!”

There’s the tragedy.

See, regardless of our arguments over justifiability of shootings, availability of guns, culpability of suspects, avoidability of responsibility, or any other –bility we can imagine, sudden and violent deaths are tragic because they strip children of their parents, parents of their children, loved ones of their loved ones . . .

Perhaps Cameron Sterling spoke for all of us when those three words rushed and gushed up from his heart–“I want daddy!” When violence of any kind wins, we all lose something, maybe even some part of ourselves.

Though my heart and spirit were heavier, my typical morning progressed until my wife Suzanne called my attention to the atypical–tragedy had forced its way into our community. Overnight, there had been an “active shooter” even here in Bristol, just minutes from our home. As the story unfolded through the morning, we were numbed by the unthinkable, the unimaginable. The shooting victim who lost her life was our age. Her children are about the same ages as our children. Her son played on the same soccer team as our son.

Just weeks ago, we sat on the sideline with her, cheering for our children. This morning, as she made her typical preparations for a typical day of work, her beautiful life ended tragically, senselessly, violently and suddenly. At this very moment, I can imagine her son, Chauncey, our team’s goalie, crying out through his own sobs, “I want momma!”

Sadly, this isn’t the first time that tragic violence has come so close to our children’s hearts. On July 27, 2008, Chloe Chavez sat with her family when a gunman opened fire in the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville. Before he was subdued, the shooter had injured Chloe’s mother, grandfather, and great uncle and had killed a family friend who was like a great aunt to her. Only a month earlier, Chloe and my daughter Grace had finished their Kindergarten year together in the same classroom. Earlier in the year, we had enjoyed meeting all those nice people at Chloe’s birthday party.

When Suzanne and I learned that she had sat there among her family members–splattered in their blood as they were wounded and killed–we could imagine six year old Chloe’s screams . . .

Today, as young Chauncey and his family cry out in grief, I remember the familiar words of my Judeo-Christian faith tradition, “How long, O Lord?”

But as a follower (and a father), the primary scripture-image that comes to my heart and mind is, “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more” (Jeremiah 31:15).

In Jeremiah’s prophecy, the image is of Rachel in her tomb in Ramah, crying for the children of Israel as they are taken away into exile. In Matthew 2:18, the gospel writer suggests that Herod’s massacre of infants is the reason for Rachel’s weeping.

Today, whether from her tomb in Ramah or from her place in God’s eternal presence, I believe with all my heart that our ancestor Rachel weeps for her children like Chloe, Cameron, and today, Chauncey, as they cry out primally for the ones they’ve loved and lost.

Our hearts weep with yours Rachel. We weep with you.

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Ten Reasons to Stay Away from Church

They’re inevitable conversations in the life of a pastor. You round the corner in the grocery store and encounter a church member who hasn’t participated in worship services or other ministries for several months, and he or she feels compelled to tell you why. You encounter the stranger in the waiting room or on the airplane, and the moment you reveal you’re a pastor, he or she rehearses the litany of reasons not to be part of a congregation. Let me be clear–I’m not talking about conversations with people who have physical limitations and yearn for the fellowship they miss in their church families. Instead, these are the stories of people who could be, but fore some reason aren’t active in church.

For years, I felt a little awkward in these conversations, afraid that perhaps I had given the other person some reason to feel guilty or defensive. I’d say something innocent and casual like, “We’ll be there when you get back,” or “We’re open every Sunday.” Now, however, I relish these opportunities to share my perspective and compassion. Across the last fifteen years or so, I’ve heard a lot of reasons to stay away from church. You may have heard and attempted to address some of them. You may have offered some of them yourself. Regardless, I invite you to wrestle with them now.

I’ll start with some of the reasons church members (or former church members) often give when they haven’t participated in a while.

10.  We can’t be there because we have to . . .
I hear this one very often, especially among families with active children, and they almost always use the word “can’t” and the phrase “have to” in their explanation, often because of some kind of sport or extracurricular activity. We can’t be there because we have to be at a soccer, swim, baseball, basketball, softball, wrestling, gymnastics, etc. tournament. Let’s tell the truth–when we say “can’t,” don’t we really mean “choose not to,” as in, “We choose not to be there because of the aforementioned athletic event.” Both as a former student athlete and as a father of four, I understand the lure. Nevertheless, we parents communicate value and priority by our actions that speak more loudly than words. At worst, we’re subtly telling our kids that sports are more important than faith–that games are more important than God. At best, we’re telling them that God can wait until the next season, year, or phase of life. This one is big, and it deserves greater attention, so I think I’ll address it more fully in a later blog post.

9.  Sunday’s the only day we get to be together as a family.
Obviously, this one’s very similar to number 10, and again, people almost always use the phrase “get to,” as if we’re passive victims of our schedules. A more honest version of this one is, “We’ve chosen to overschedule our lives, and so we choose sleep or time at home over worship on Sunday mornings.” Again, we parents communicate value by the choices we make, and we’re subtly telling our families that all of that busy-ness of the other six days is more important than our families’ lives of worship and devotion on Sunday morning.

What priority can we expect our children to give their lives of faith if we parents communicate to them by our actions that speak more loudly than words that all the other things that occupy our time come first, and worship is for those Sunday mornings that we don’t happen to be busy or resting? On the other hand, what better way is there to spend “quality time” as a family than in a shared life of faith? Besides, wouldn’t we rather spend eternity together as a family than risk another eternal outcome because faith wasn’t one of the most important parts of our family life?

8.  My kids just don’t like to go to church.
This comment is often followed by some statement about not wanting to “shove religion down their throats.” Hardly ever, however, do we parents have conversations with each other about whether sending our kids to school or taking them to doctor and dentist appointments is shoving education and healthcare down their throats, despite the fact that our kids don’t particularly like those experiences either. I often wonder where we Christians got the idea that we and our children are supposed to enjoy everything about following Jesus, who–by the way–told us that we should deny ourselves and take up a cross and follow him each day. Self-denial doesn’t come naturally. It has to be taught and learned. Here’s an opportunity for us to teach our kids that it’s not about us and our enjoyment. It’s about devotion to the one who loved us enough to die for us.

7.  I don’t like the . . . 
The end of this sentence varies dramatically, according to a person’s individual preferences–and I use the word “preferences” intentionally, simply because I’m convinced so many of our dislikes are matters of preference rather than principle. For many, it’s the preacher. For many others, it’s the music. For still others, it’s the time or style of the worship service. It can be almost anything, including the sanctuary, the color scheme, the translation of scripture most commonly used, the decision making process of the governing board or council, the parking lot, the denomination’s stance on one issue or another . . . and the list goes on and on. 

Nevertheless, if I may be blunt, Jesus never promised that we would like everything about his church. In fact, after he tells Peter that he will build his church upon this rock, Jesus only mentions the church once, and that is to tell us what to do when we don’t get along with each other! Somehow, however, we have gotten the idea that our participation in a community of faith should often or always bring us enjoyment, and we’re disillusioned when it doesn’t.

I have a running joke with some young people in our congregation. When they tell me what they don’t like, they expect me to reply with something like, “I doubt Jesus liked hanging on the cross, but he did it because he loves you.” Regardless of age, one lesson we continually need to learn is that our life together in a community of faith is (or should be) less about our likes and enjoyment than about seeking to love and serve Jesus and others.

Especially with our culture’s emphasis upon the rights of the individual, we tend to wonder what’s in it for us. And to be honest, the church has done little to discourage that perspective. Swept up in the prevailing consumer culture, we’ve marketed ourselves to the public, persuading people to become part of our fellowship because of all we have to offer to them or to their families. Like American Express, we’ve led people to believe “membership has its privileges.” But the church doesn’t exist to please its members. To the contrary,  the church exists to engage its members in self-denying service in Jesus’ name, like it or not.

6.  I’m not being fed at church.
I do not take this lightly. As pastor, two of my chief responsibilities are preaching and teaching, and like most pastors, I take those responsibilities very seriously. Because Jesus asks commands us to love God with heart, mind, soul, & strength, it’s crucial that the church engage heart, mind, and soul with its ministries. If people aren’t being offered good spiritual food, the church should explore that very prayerfully.

However, my friend, colleague, and fellow pastor Alan Gray recently gave me a different way of looking at this problem. Who needs to be fed  by another? Usually an infant. As Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, “I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food.” Maybe part of the problem is that we Christians aren’t growing up. There’s a good chance we’re starving. Imagine eating only one meal per week. We hardly consider that healthy. Similarly, if we’re not nourishing our faith between Sundays or apart from our participation in the life of the church, there’s probably no way we can be adequately fed in one hour doses on Sundays. The significant difference between our being offered food and being fed is the extent to which we’re willing to bear some responsibility for our own nourishment.

5.  Something/someone in church really hurt me.
I feel very deep empathy with and sympathy for anyone who feels this way. Because the church is a community of believers built upon love for God and neighbors, it is particularly painful to feel wounded by a congregation or one of its members. It is very difficult to return to that fellowship and allow yourself to be vulnerable, to subject yourself to the memory of pain or of the possibility of additional pain.

As we all know, some people have been deeply wounded by sexual predators who have violated the sacred trust that binds us together in the Body of Christ. I can’t imagine the depth of their pain. In their shoes, I don’t know that I would or even could return. We Christians need to dwell on their pain and let it inspire us to keep the church a sanctuary, a holy haven from the violence of the world around us. Trust is slowly gained and quickly lost. The church should be in the constant business of building and gaining trust by demonstrating love and mercy.

On the other hand, there are many who shun the church because of hurt feelings born of differences of opinion, poor communication, and a million other causes. Though we must take their pain very seriously too, we also need to hear Jesus’ counsel in Matthew 18:21-22 about persistence in forgiveness. Apparently, Jesus never expected us to coexist in his church without occasional friction. Many of us remember singing, “The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is people!” It’s true that I am the church, you are the church, and we are the church together. We’re human and broken, and we’re going to hurt each other at times. Rather than taking the path of least resistance and walking away from church, Jesus asks us to do the hard work of forgiving and reconciling.

Thus ends the part of this post that we might call preaching to the choir. The preceding are some of the most common reasons “church people” give for staying away from church, but many people have never been committed to or even approached the church at all, and here are some of the reasons they’ve offered me across the years.

4.  Church people are such hypocrites.
I usually respond to this one by saying, “Well, we can always use one more, so come join us!” I’m not really joking when I say that. Of course we’re hypocrites. We see splinters in others’ eyes and fail to see the planks in our own. We complain about others’ sins and rationalize our own. We fail to practice what we preach. We need grace. There’s a whole lot of truth in the bumper sticker that says, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.”

I do, however, understand some of the prevailing frustrations with and critiques of the church. It’s sadly true that we Christians can be most vocal about what we’re against. We can be perceived as people who are “anti-” in a variety of ways. At our very core, however, we Christians are (or should be) a bunch of people trying to walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. In pursuit of him, we’re trying to show his love to others by loving and serving our neighbors, and that’s not a bad mission. I dare you to come join us.

3.  I watch a TV preacher(-s), and that’s my church.
This reason for staying away rests on the assumption that the church’s primary (or only) mission is to provide uplifting preaching. But the church strives to be–and is–so much more than a weekly sermon. The word translated as church in the New Testament is the Greek word ekklesia, which means “the assembly,” or “the gathering.” Church necessarily includes involvement in a community.

Here’s another way in which the society’s emphasis upon the individual affects the individual’s view of faith. Our culture really seems to believe that faith is a matter between an individual and God, private from and exclusive of any involvement with other people. However, that’s a completely foreign notion in the Bible with its emphasis upon community, covenant, kingdom, and church.

Let me be clear–I’m so glad that churches and preachers broadcast their services and sermons. We need that little oasis of holiness in the midst of more typical secular programming on television. These broadcasts are very meaningful in many Christians’ devotional lives–especially, it seems, for older adults who are less mobile than they once were. But no television broadcast can replace participation in the ekklesia, the community of believers. The church is people.

2.  I can be just as close to God . . . 
There are probably thousands of ways to end this sentence. You’ve probably heard several of them. I can be just as close to God in the mountains, on the farm, at the lake, on the golf course, on my porch, in the garden, at the beach . . . and the list goes on and on.  I’ll grant you this one. You probably can be just as close to God at other places and in other settings as you can in a sanctuary among other people. But you can’t participate in the body of Christ on your own.

Paul wrote to the Hebrews, “let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.” That can only be done in community! Again though, our culture emphasizes the individual, and we tend to think of our faith as a private matter between ourselves and God, but God created us to live in community. Jesus didn’t call disciples to follow him individually. He called them to follow him collectively.

1.  I’m not a religious person. I’m a spiritual person.
This claim is as old as the church. Literally. Influenced by Greek philosophers of earlier centuries, some first century Christians tried to distinguish between the ideal and the actual. Schools of thought like Docetism rejected the idea that Jesus actually suffered death, because they believed to admit Jesus’ incarnation was to admit his flaws. For them, the spiritual was ideal, and the physical was necessarily flawed. Similarly, I often encounter people who claim to be spiritual rather than religious because they seem to think that religion is almost necessarily corrupt, while spiritual enlightenment is more perfect and sublime.

I think they’re on to something, but I think they’re missing something. The church is flawed, but it’s the Body of Christ in the world. The church really should be less about religious doctrine and more about spirit-filled movement, but it’s the instrument Jesus chose to share his love and grace with the world. By standing apart from the church, a spiritual person may position himself or herself above the church’s corruption, but at the same time, he/she also chooses to stand beyond its grace, fellowship, and maybe most importantly, accountability.

Your spiritual sensitivity is a gift from God. Jesus says so in John’s gospel–“God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” But Paul points out in several of his letters that your spiritual gift is for the sake of the Body of Christ in the world. Rather than standing apart from the church because of its flaws, come refine the church by sharing your God-given gifts and strengths. You might find  a surprising sense of fulfillment as you take your place within this Body of Christ animated by God’s Holy Spirit.

1b.  I don’t believe in God.
Well, God believes in you, and the church exists for you. Our love, our prayers, and everything we do is for you. At least it should be.

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God Bless Dr. Griffin

Almost twenty-five years ago in August 1989, I sat in a cramped basement office on the campus of Emory & Henry College meeting with my assigned faculty advisor to select courses for my first semester. Honestly, I expected the meeting to be a mere formality because I had already met with the beloved registrar Al Mitchell earlier in the summer to choose classes. Since I would be playing football and basketball and because I needed to maintain a high grade point average to keep my academic scholarship, Mr. Mitchell and I had put together an academic schedule that would help me ease into my college experience.

But in that small office on the day before registration, the man who claimed some of his students called him Dr. Death had other ideas. As he held my high school transcript in one hand and the course schedule I had arranged with Mr. Mitchell in the other, he asked, “Jonas, are you afraid of college?” He went on to tell me that I owed it to myself and to the academic community around me to embark upon a more challenging first semester, and therefore, he unceremoniously ripped up my proposed schedule, and we started over. I can’t say that my first impression of him was overwhelmingly positive.

As it turned out, however, he did me a great service. The course schedule that he helped me to assemble included “The History of Ancient & Medieval Philosophy” with Dr. Ed Damer. Left to my own preferences, I probably would not have chosen that one, but by the end of the semester, I discovered that I was a lover of wisdom–literally a philosopher–and because of my experience in that class, I went on to major in philosophy.

My first semester also included Psychology 101 with Dr. Steve Hopp, who changed my life by changing my view of learning and education. I’ve always been blessed with a pretty good memory, and I had discovered that memorization can be very helpful in test preparation. In psychology lab one afternoon, I was committing course material to memory when Dr. Hopp said these transformative words, “Don’t just memorize; conceptualize.” I’ve been trying ever since to conceptualize, to learn in context, to see the bigger pictures, the nuances, and the intricacies. Anyone can memorize. Not everyone can really learn. I might have missed that lesson if I had kept my “ease into college” schedule.

One of the beauties of a small college is that it is less institution than community. So, after we completely remodeled my schedule as advisor and advisee, I began to get to know Dr. Terry Griffin in our new relationship as professor and student. He was my instructor for the first semester of freshman Western Tradition, and I very quickly realized that he was unlike any teacher I had encountered. He often smoked cigarettes (even in class!), always with the plastic filter attachment. His sense of humor was dry, and I had the distinct impression that he enjoyed coming across as having a sense of impropriety bordering on irreverence.

Our faculty emphasized the importance of gender inclusivity and required us to write “he or she” or “s/he” or “his or her”  in cases in which gender was unspecified. One day in class Dr. Griffin suggested that we had not taken gender inclusivity far enough because in our effort to include both masculine and feminine, we had completely ignored neuter. So, he told us that it would be perfectly appropriate in his class to use a combination pronoun made up of the “s” from the feminine she, the “h” from the masculine he, and the neuter pronoun “it.” Of course, the spelling of his newly fabricated, completely inclusive pronoun was “shit.” I can still hear Dr. Griffin saying, “What?! We don’t want neutered people to feel left out!” My appreciation and admiration for him grew throughout that first semester because he was so uninhibited.  In so many ways, he was what I could not be.

Mainly because I had enjoyed his Western Tradition class so much, I decided to fulfill my foreign language requirement in his German classes. He did not disappoint. His wry sense of humor, his exaggerated pronunciation and enunciation of those guttural German sounds, and so many other uniquely Griffinesque touches made his classes equally educational and entertaining.

One day in class he furrowed his brow as he looked at me and said, “Jonas,” (because he never called me anything but Jonas), “did I teach another Jonas here a few years ago?” When I told him that my dad had taken German with him a generation earlier, he frowned and nodded. In our next class session, he very brusquely said, “Jonas, there’s only one explanation–you’re adopted.” I made As in Dr. Griffin’s class. Apparently, my dad didn’t.

The unwritten rules of social convention never seemed to faze him. If he thought it, he felt perfectly free to say it. As we studied German grammar in comparison and contrast to English grammar, he expressed his frustration that so many rules of grammar seem so arbitrary. He asked, “Who decided that sentences can’t end with prepositions?” Apparently, this was a long held and deeply held frustration because he told us about the argument he had with one of his elementary school teachers who had penalized him for ending sentences with prepositions. In protest, he claimed to have set the world record by ending a sentence in his next composition with five consecutive prepositions. In his story, a little boy asked his mother at bedtime, “Why did you bring that book that I didn’t want to be read to out of up for?” There they are. Five prepositions.

As we discussed the German language within the context of German culture, he said, “Some Germans can be so arrogant.” He went on to tell us about an experience he had one summer at a foreign language conference when he shared a meal with several professors, including one from a German university–perhaps Heidelberg? Apparently, this native of Germany made some disparaging remarks about the United States, suggesting that our society was less refined and sophisticated than German culture. By his own account, Dr. Griffin stood, looked straight at the professor from Germany, and said, “We kicked your asses in back in 1918, we did it again in ’45, and by God we can still do it today!”

Vintage Griffin–simultaneously educating and entertaining, so opinionated yet so apparently unconcerned with others’ opinions of him. Whenever I talk about my Emory & Henry years, I almost always sprinkle in a Griffin story or two. In fact, during the Holston Annual Conference back in June, I spent a couple of hours with a few other E&H alumni as we tried to outdo each other’s Griffin stories. We laughed until we cried . . .

Yesterday, I just cried.

Murder is always tragic. Domestic violence and abuse are always tragic, wherever they occur. Yesterday’s news seemed particularly tragic to me because it was so close to home. It was heartbreaking enough that the tragedy unfolded in nearby Glade Spring. It took my breath away to read that shooting and murder broke out in the home of Dr. Terry Griffin early yesterday morning.

It seems that Dr. Griffin’s son-in-law broke into the home and shot Dr. Griffin, his wife, his daughter, and grandson. Apparently, the shooter then took his own life. So, I understand that Dr. Griffin is recovering from his physical wounds in a hospital room. I don’t know how he will recover from the emotional and spiritual wounds of having his home invaded and of losing his wife, daughter, and grandson.

A couple of decades ago on the Emory & Henry campus, I saw Dr. Griffin as a mischievous iconoclast. With his gruff exterior and his intellectual bravado, I certainly respected him, and I very well may have envied him, but back then I couldn’t imagine a circumstance in which I would feel pity for him.

Today, I just want to hug him. God bless you Dr. Griffin. Gott segne dich.

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